08 Feb Book Review: Madoff By Erin Arvedlund
This book tells the story of Bernard Lawrence Madoff who was tried in New York in March 2009 and handed down a ‘symbolic’ sentence of 150 years in prison for perpetuating the biggest financial crime in history. The book’s sub-title, ‘The Man Who Stole $65 billion,’ hints at the magnitude of the crime but the author makes clear the exact amount will never be known. In spite of the book having been rushed to press in the same year as the trial, it shows evidence of thorough research, and it is no fault of the author that she was able to pose more questions than she could answer.
The most amazing aspect of this book is that although nobody knows when or why Madoff started his illegal manipulations, he certainly operated his so called ‘ponzi scheme,’ a fraudulent hedge fund linked to a seemingly legitimate trading operation, for two or three decades before he was put on trial. And although the collapse of his empire was undoubtedly imminent after the financial recession of 2007/8, it was Madoff who gave himself up and confessed to his crime.
Madoff was 72 years old when he went on trial, an age greater than ‘man’s allotted span’ according to the Jewish scriptures. He had enjoyed the proceeds of crime, including several yachts, private jets and mansions in several countries and US states, for what many would consider a lifetime. To be imprisoned at that age is a form of punishment, but many would feel that it was inadequate in terms of years likely to be served. The author suggests that whistle blowers were ignored and government agencies were delinquent in not stopping Madoff’s activities much earlier. There is little doubt that some suspicions were allayed by the high profits that many individuals were gaining from the scheme.
Madoff refused to cooperate with the state prosecutors and maintained that he alone was responsible for the criminal activity. The author suggests that Madoff’s wife, Ruth, and at least one close business partner must have been involved in what the trial judge condemned as an ‘extraordinary evil’ that ruined the lives of hundreds of people. So people who benefitted for decades from this great crime have escaped punishment, and Madoff’s sole few years behind bars is hardly likely to deter others from attempting similar financial frauds.
Madoff belonged to the large and closely knit Jewish community in the USA, and large numbers of Jews in New York and Florida featured prominently as investors in Madoff’s scheme. One might have expected much greater insight into the character and personality of Bernie Madoff, as he was known in financial circles. He is the central figure in the book yet he is given no substance as a real person. He comes across as an automaton, almost as one might perceive a rogue computer that runs amok in Wall Street, out of control because nobody knows how it works. And how do you punish a computer?